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Diets

Dieting is one of those things that is completely integrated into American culture. On any given day, a huge portion of the U.S. population is "on a diet" and "counting calories" in one way or another. And look at how many of the diet names in the following list you recognize:
  • The Atkins Diet
  • The Cabbage Soup Diet
  • The Grapefruit Diet
  • The Hollywood Miracle Diet
  • The Rice Diet
  • The Scarsdale Diet
  • The South Beach Diet
  • The Zone Diet

You probably recognize many of these names because you hear them all the time!

The reason why most diets tend not to work for very long is because they are not sustainable. A person gains weight because he or she consumes more calories per day than needed. The diet creates a temporary deficit. When the diet ends, the person goes back to normal eating and the weight comes back.
Let's look at an example. Say that you weigh 150 pounds. That means that you burn 1,800 calories per day in a resting state. Let's also imagine that in the course of a day you burn 200 more calories living your life -- walking up and down steps, carrying in the groceries and so on. Your calorie needs then are, on average, 2,000 calories per day. Now let's further imagine that, on average, you consume 2,050 calories per day. On a daily basis your body is taking in, and therefore storing, 50 calories more than it needs. So every 70 days (3,500 calories in a pound / 50 calories each day = 70 days) you gain 1 pound (0.45 kg). If that "50 extra calories per day" trend continues, then over the course of a year you would gain 5 pounds. This, by the way, is the pattern for a big portion of the U.S. population. If you over-consume by just a few calories per day, over time you will gain weight. Keep in mind that just one Oreo-type cookie contains 50 calories, so over-consuming is incredibly easy.

Now, you go on a diet -- the amazing "Get Slim Miracle Diet." On this diet, you consume nothing but 2 cups of brown rice and a can of Vienna sausages, along with all the onions you care to eat, every day. You start this diet and you are consuming only 1,000 calories per day. You also start jogging 2 miles a day. That means that, on a typical day, you are consuming 1,200 calories less than you need. Over the course of three days (3,500 calories in a pound / 1,200 calories each day = approximately 3 days), you will lose 1 pound of weight. You keep on this diet for two months and lose 20 pounds.

The day you go off this diet, what is going to happen? First, you are probably going to eat a lot more than normal because you have been eating nothing but rice and Vienna sausages for two months! Then you will settle into your "normal eating pattern" that you had before the diet. And eventually all of the weight comes back.

This is why diets don't work for most people. You do lose weight, but then go off the diet and gain it back. What is needed instead is a sustainable diet -- a food consumption and exercise plan -- that lets you live a normal life and eat normal foods in a normal way.

There are three major food groups: carbohydrate, fat and protein. These have different functions in the body.

Carbohydrate


Carbohydrate is the body's preferred source of fuel. Carbohydrate should make up about 50% of daily energy intake. There are two main types of carbohydrate - complex and simple. Complex carbohydrates include starch and fibre. Simple carbohydrates include sugars.

We should get most of our carbohydrate from the complex carbohydrates. These include starchy "fillers" such as bread, potatoes, pasta, rice and chapati. Complex carbohydrate foods tend to be bulky, so eating them makes a satisfying meal. They can also be rich in nutrients and fibre (which is good for the bowel), and low in calories relative to their weight. Each gram provides around four calories. Choose wholegrain varieties whenever possible as these also contain more fibre.

The rest of our carbohydrate intake comes from foods and drinks that contain sugar, including fruit and vegetables, milk, confectionery, sugar and soft drinks.

Most people would benefit from eating a higher proportion of starchy carbohydrate in their daily diet. This tends to result in a diet that is lower in fat, and higher in dietary fibre, especially if wholegrain varieties are chosen.

Eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day is also highly recommended. There is good evidence that fruit and vegetables cut the risk of disease, including some cancers and heart disease. In any case, they can be filling, low in calories and high in fibre.

Foods high in refined sugar such as table sugar, sugary drinks and confectionery provide "empty calories". This means that apart from the energy the sugar provides, there is often very little else of nutritional value. Sugar also contributes to tooth decay and gum disease, and can cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate excessively. It is a good idea to limit your sugar intake.

Alcohol

The body readily converts alcohol to carbohydrate - each gram provides about seven calories. Like refined sugar, alcohol provides "empty calories". This is one of the reasons why alcohol should be limited in a healthy diet.

Fat

Fat is the most energy-dense nutrient, providing around nine calories of energy in each gram. Fat also provides fatty acids which are needed for many vital functions in the body.

In small quantities, fat is essential for good health but it should represent no more than 35% of daily energy intake.

Eating a lot of fat, particularly saturated fat, is unhealthy. It increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (including heart attack and stroke) and, because it is so rich in calories, makes it much easier to become obese. Most of us should aim to reduce the proportion of saturated fats in our diet, and also the total fat content of our diet.

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, and come from meat and dairy products. A high intake of saturated fat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. You should aim to consume no more than 10% of your total energy from saturated fats. Cutting the fat off meat and eating lower-fat versions of dairy foods - semi-skimmed milk, yoghurt instead of cream, etc - can help to achieve this.

Unsaturated fats come mainly from vegetable and fish sources. They tend to be liquid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats are divided into two types - monounsaturates and polyunsaturates. They are both healthier than saturated fats, and it makes sense to replace some of the saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated ones - replacing butter with olive oil, meat with fish.

Most of us need to increase our intake of omega 3 fatty acids. This type of fatty acid helps to protect us against heart disease. Eating a portion of oily fish (eg sardines, mackerel or salmon) every week is a good way to meet your omega 3 requirements.

Cholesterol is another type of fat, which is mostly made by the body in the liver. High levels of cholesterol in the blood increase the risk of heart disease. Certain foods are high in cholesterol, including eggs and offal. However, dietary cholesterol does not contribute much to blood cholesterol in most people. Saturated fats contribute more to blood cholesterol, so it's more important to reduce these.

Protein

Protein provides about four calories in each gram, but this energy is less readily released than from carbohydrate. Protein should represent around 15% of our daily calorie intake.

We mainly use protein to build and repair our body tissues. All animal and plant foods contain some protein. Protein provided by animal foods is closest to the proteins needed by the body. However, a balanced vegetarian diet also provides adequate protein.

Most people in the UK eat a reasonable amount and don't need to alter their protein intake. However, it makes sense to ensure that the protein foods you choose are low in fat. For instance, instead of high fat chicken nuggets, try lean pieces of chicken or pulses such as beans or chickpeas.

Micronutrients

As well as the major food groups, we need a small amount of many vitamins and minerals. These perform various jobs in the body, helping chemical and biological reactions take place.

Vitamin or mineral deficiencies can lead to illness - scurvy in the case of vitamin C and rickets in vitamin D, although these deficiency illnesses are now rare in the UK. Vitamins and minerals also help to support the immune system and guard against illness in the long term.

Vitamin and mineral supplements

Most of us should be able to get all the vitamins and minerals we need from a balanced diet. Certain groups of people will benefit from a vitamin or mineral supplement. These include children from six months to five years old and women who are pregnant or might get pregnant, who should take folic acid supplements.

Some other groups of people chose to take supplements. If you choose to take a supplement, don't be tempted to take very high doses as some vitamins and minerals are toxic in large quantities.

Practical tips for a better diet

Eat more wholegrain starchy carbohydrates, ie wholemeal bread, brown rice, wholegrain cereals. It can help to alter the balance of everyday meals, for instance, more bread and less sandwich filling, more pasta and less creamy sauce.
Eat more fruit and vegetables, aiming for at least five portions a day. Include fruit at breakfast and salad at lunch.
Cut down on salt by eating less processed food, such as ready meals, and adding less salt to food.
Eat a varied diet. Change your shopping list every week to help keep you out of unhealthy food ruts and make eating more enjoyable.
Eat regular meals - although it doesn't matter when you eat your food, a regular routine helps most people to control their diet and their weight.
Control your portion sizes so that over time, if not necessarily every day, the amount of energy you consume matches your level of activity.
Try to be more physically active. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week. Activity helps to regulate your appetite, and means that you can eat more without gaining weight.
Drink alcohol only within sensible limits: not more than 14 units per week for women (and no more than three in any one day) and not more than 21 units per week for men (and no more than four in any one day).